Imagine you are trying to plan a movie, which has the whole of Los Angeles – a very big city, area wise – invaded by aliens, the city burning and smoke rising everywhere, and a full scale attack going on simultaneously all over town, so that any pan in any direction automatically would reveal the total and utter devastation of this great city by homicidal aliens bend on total annihalation of the human race. Invasion! War!
Your name is not James Cameron and your script is without mass appeal in the gut wrenching sense of the word, so NO big budget of a size that could feed half of the equatorial area of Africa for 6 months.
This means you cannot make uncontrolled pans in any direction, as this stresses the budget to pay for CGI and physical special effects.
What do you do?
If you are a lousy director brought in from Mexican wrestling films or daytime TV, you just do what you always do: You bungle the movie in a large way, it goes direct to video, an exec or two are fired (or not) and Rotten Tomatoes have their way.
BUT if you have talent, you make the best of your limitatations.
SO you cannot sweep and pan to you heart’s desire. All right. You don’t believe in hiding anything, and not just because you probably cannot completely hide it from today’s movie audience. NO, you want to make the best of it. You have ambitions as a director and every frame must count.
If you cannot show the surroundings to your hearts desire, what are you left with? People and natural obstructions and cloaking.
Obstructions are tall buildings while characters are walking among them, or basically anything higher than the characters as the camera follows close by in imitation of an extra person; cars, helmets, camera following characters down into hiding etc.
Cloaking is smoke in the street, interiors, smoke in the sky, action on TV with signal breaking up etc. There are many options, and all these devices become part of the story, to almost constitute characters in their own right: What are the dangers and qualities of the smoke? What is the character of a police station without police? etc. The job is the cinematographer and the director’s in unison. To make the settings speak with meaning.
People are always interesting, at least characters CAN be. The script can do A LOT for the audience’s perception and appreciation; you can have people sitting in chairs creating a tension filled mexican stand-off just with words and intonations, or you can have them be and not say anything and be the greatest love story ever. But you probably don’t have this kind of script, as most scripts deal only with loss and rarely with the cost of loss. Meaning: Real world consequences. You will have the stripped down version. Good, bad, live, die, victory, loss, hero, coward etc.
There is only one good option, when the horizon is basically off limits: Go close. Go right up to the characters personifying the loss the script is about. Make their faces count. Make them show what fighting not to lose looks like. Show the audience that everyone will lose in this story, if the objective is not fulfilled: To take away control and initiative from the invaders, in order to regain what was being attempted stolen.
THIS is what this movie is about. How perfectly ordinary people look under duress. There are no finer points to the movie – in many many ways the story has been remade since the first braggary of the victor over his attacker: Those who sacrifice themselves or risk their own lives in the face of the enemy. But the people are really PEOPLE. And they really ARE under duress in an attack. This we must believe for this story to work. because it really is the only story the director can tell on his budget.
Things blow up, robot monsters make a mess of things, their origin and motivation safely tucked away in between the Hollywood reasons to make a movie: Fame and Money. Slightly unpopular characters go down in heroic blaze, fascistic reduction of real world politics take place (”I would rather fight in Afghanistan than in this (alien) mess”), gender issues are made a mess of (first Hero soldier gives the Marines’ speech to the frightened boy, and the woman comes and comforts the boy and leads him away), every human and alien character flaw is equalized with physical damage or hurt. Payback, perseverence, courage, unselfishness, respect for hierachy. Military at its worst (and probably best, for some).
I never said this is an amazing movie, but… look at the faces. Observe the attempt to tell the story of people under duress in closeups, which is also an attempt to make an empty story and inadequate script count.
It’s not bad.
kenneth krabat, may 2011